When I was a kid, the Laird junkyard was situated two miles north of the village on a few acres of scrub land. Bushes grew on two sides of it and wheat fields on the others, and inside the barbwire fence old car bodies lay gutted and rusting under the prairie sun, empty tin cans were piled in treacherous heaps, and here and there we’d just hold our noses at stinking piles of garbage and keep moving along.
But the junkyard had its hidden treasures. Discarded LOOK magazines with gorgeous women in bathing suits, dry bullet lighters that could possibly be fixed and filled with fluid in case we ever got a chance to smoke, and a fair number of empty bottles to cash in at the store. Every so often the municipality sent a tractor with a front-end loader to push the trash into bigger mounds, thus burying some treasures forever, so we had to get them while the getting was good.
There was a day when Jacky Unger and I found a battered canning tub on one of our summer visits, and immediately thought how great it would be to fill it with empty beer and pop bottles and haul them back to town and buy some cigarettes with the money. We weren’t quite in our teens, and although the hotel proprietor’s son, one of our classmates, smoked plain-end Exports openly (“Toby don’t take no filter tips,” one kid noted), in Jacky’s and my religion smoking was such a sin that our elders doubted any unrepentant smoker could get into heaven.
It took us a while, but finally the tub was full. There were Kiks and Suncrests and Old Viennas, Pilsner bottles with labels of a stagecoach and train and airplane and car, and Indians at their tepee with a little white rabbit in the grass watching the traffic. Some bottles were clean and glinting in the sunlight, others so grungy that we doubted the store would take them, but maybe were worth the try. Jacky had decided he wanted Cameos, having heard that menthol made the smoke cool, and cool was what we wanted, in both senses of the term.
But it was a long, hot trip back to the village along the diagonal of the railway track, which gave us plenty of time to rehearse what to say to Bernice, the Co-op clerk, about why we wanted to buy those cigarettes. We set the tub down to rest every dozen ties or so, and to fine-tune our script. As we neared the village we were sweating and panting, fantasizing being cool, but more jittery than we’d hoped as we hefted the tub one final time and carried it to the sidewalk and the front door of the Co-op.
No one was inside but Bernice. She pointed at a big box in the back corner, and we went to unload our bottles. She came to count them, and Jacky and I carried the tub toward the counter and began talking loudly enough to be sure Bernice overheard.
“What should we get Merv for his birthday?” Jacky asked.
“I don’t know,” I said, “what do you think?”
“Well, what does he like to do?”
Already Bernice was approaching the counter.
“Hey!” (suddenly I remembered), “doesn’t he smoke?”
“That’s right” (now Jacky remembered too), “but what brand?”
“I think Cameos” — I shot a glance at Bernice and was sure her look meant You stupid little twerps, how dumb do you think I am?
“You’re right,” Jacky said, “Cameos. Let’s get him some.”
And the marvel of the thing was that Bernice sold us the smokes. One pack of Cameos came sliding across the counter, I peered at the door, we were so close, now wouldn’t be a good time for someone to come in.
Jacky slipped the pack into his pocket and Bernice said, “You still have a nickel left. You want anything else?”
“A pack of Spearmint gum,” I said, just that instant realizing we’d need it, and Jacky looked impressed that I’d thought of it.
Ah, back then we never looked back as we went out the door. But don’t I wish today that we could have seen the smirk on the clerk’s face.
Ratzlaff is the author of three books of literary non-fiction published by Thistledown Press: The Crow Who Tampered With Time (2002), Backwater Mystic Blues (2006), and Bindy’s Moon (2015); and editor of Seeing it Through, an anthology of seniors’ writings published by READ Saskatoon. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.